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The best PM we never had

We've had three hundred years of British premiers — but did the right person always win?

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April 5, 2021

It was an enormously significant moment in our national story, but nobody quite knows how, when or where it happened. There was no ceremony, no grand entrance, no cheering crowd. There was only a curt line in the morning papers. “We are inform’d that a Commission is preparing, appointing Mr Walpole first Lord Commissioner of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.” And so it was that, at some point on 3 April 1721, Sir Robert Walpole became George I’s First Lord of the Treasury, the first Prime Minister in our history.

At the time, few people could have predicted where Walpole’s appointment would lead. Yet three centuries later, 52 men and two women have followed in his footsteps: charmers and charlatans, moralists and mountebanks, pragmatists and prophets. Today, as Boris Johnson ascends the staircase at 10 Downing Street, their portraits gaze down at him. The calculating stare of William Pitt the Younger; the grim glower of William Gladstone; the bulldog features of Winston Churchill; the icy blue eyes of Margaret Thatcher. A handful of great names, and a host of forgotten ones: the Earl of Bute, Viscount Goderich, the Earl of Derby. Outside the academy, who now recalls Arthur Balfour, Andrew Bonar Law or Sir Alec Douglas-Home? Who still cares about Harold Wilson? Who, realistically, will remember Gordon Brown?

Today, when the premiership seems an indelible feature of the British constitution, it is easy to forget how messily it began. Kings and queens had relied on chief ministers for centuries, and at first there was no sign that Walpole would be any different. Like many later prime ministers, he took the reins at a moment of intense uncertainty. The new Hanoverian dynasty was haunted by the spectre of a French-backed Jacobite rebellion, while the nation’s financial stability was threatened by the fallout from the South Sea Bubble. Europe and the economy: nothing changes.

Since Walpole was the first Prime Minister, and served for almost 21 years, why isn’t he better remembered? One banal reason, I suppose, is that it was such a long time ago. To people not very interested in history, Walpole’s Britain seems impossibly distant. Our first premier was born in 1676, when his oldest neighbours could still remember the last days of Elizabeth I. He lived at a time when Europe’s major ideological division pitted Protestants and Catholics, and when people moved around London in carriages and sedan chairs.

And even much of his own country was a mystery to him. As Anthony Seldon writes in his new history of the British premiership, Walpole never visited Manchester or Bristol, let alone Wales or Scotland. To travel from London to his Norfolk house, Houghton Hall, took at least two days on largely unpaved roads. As MP for King’s Lynn he never faced serious opposition and had little reason to fear the electorate. The only person he really needed to care about was the king — and George could barely speak English. When Walpole visited the palace to discuss affairs of state, they talked in French, and sometimes even in Latin.

Yet is Walpole really so remote? Despite his calculating intelligence and financial know-how, he cuts an endearingly earthy, flesh-and-blood figure. Another prime ministerial biographer, the journalist Andrew Gimson, notes that Walpole played the part of the country squire to perfection, ostentatiously opening his gamekeeper’s letters before turning to his political paperwork. His mistress, Molly Skerrett, was fully 25 years his junior. Perhaps above all, he was famously, flagrantly corrupt. In his own words, he was “no saint, no spartan, no reformer”. Remind you of anyone?

For those of us who enjoy prime ministerial history, it’s a glorious coincidence that the 300th anniversary of Walpole’s appointment comes with another roistering Old Etonian installed in Number 10. For Gimson, the parallels with Boris Johnson suggest that “we still live in an 18th-century country, a mixture of elegant civilisation and extreme rudeness; earthy, passionate, drunken, reckless, and certainly not in thrall to Victorian values”. Seldon even imagines Walpole and Johnson at a candlelit Downing Street dinner, the two men swapping anecdotes about the frustrations of power, the ghastliness of the French and the pleasures of fine wines, women and money.

All this hints at the fundamental continuity of prime ministerial history. Everything changes, yet the job remains largely the same. The nature of the economy, the structure of international relations, the expectations of the voters, the management of colleagues, the day-to-day business of government, the very warp and weft of political life have been utterly transformed since Walpole’s day. But human nature hasn’t changed. Nor have the arts of making friends and influencing people, of stitching up enemies and rivals, of playing to an audience, of making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. It’s easy to imagine Boris Johnson crashing around the political salons of eighteenth century London, his wig askew over his blond mop, his buttons bursting from all that roast beef. Would he have risen to the top back then? Why not?

What are the lessons from the last 300 years? Perhaps the most obvious, as Walpole and Johnson would be delighted to agree, is that few successful Prime Minsters have been paragons of virtue. There’s always Gladstone, of course — never happier than when hewing logs, redeeming prostitutes or writing a commentary on Homer. But he was the exception, not the rule. And even in his High Victorian heyday, there were plenty of people who thought him a humbug and a hypocrite.

The truth is that Johnson fits perfectly well into the general run of British Prime Ministers. His critics accuse him of being lazy and dilettantish, as if all his predecessors had been martyrs to their paperwork. Yet one of our most underrated premiers, Herbert Henry Asquith, spent long afternoons playing bridge with pretty girls and was outraged that the advent of the First World War forced him to miss a country house weekend with his adored Venetia Stanley — again, a quarter of a century his junior. Another criminally underestimated Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was flogged at Harrow for writing amateur pornography, scraped a Third at Cambridge, took legendarily long summer holidays in Aix-les-Bains and was regarded by some of his contemporaries as one of the laziest men they had ever met. Yet Asquith ran the country for almost nine years, Baldwin for seven. Would they have been more popular if they had worked harder? Perhaps we should ask Gordon Brown.

Johnson is also typical in being a natural performer, who loves showing off and playing to the gallery. Bien-pensant intellectuals shudder at this sort of thing, because they think politicians should be like university lecturers, dropping abstract nouns into the dead silence of the seminar room. Yet in reality, successful politicians are almost always entertainers. This was true even in the pre-democratic age, when they needed to perform to the court and the monarch. And most successful modern Prime Ministers have been shameless actors, gleefully pandering to the expectations of their audiences.

Think of Tony Blair, formerly the lead singer of Ugly Rumours. Think of Harold Wilson, hamming it up with a pipe he never smoked offstage. Think of Margaret Thatcher, rarely happier than when donning her overalls to tour a Cadbury’s Creme Egg factory. Or read Christopher Hibbert’s portrait of the ultimate Victorian populist, Benjamin Disraeli, strolling down Regent Street in blue trousers and red-striped stockings, the dyed “black curls carefully arranged in the centre of his forehead, one of his eyelids drooping now, his tired, pale face gently rouged, rings worn over the fingers of his white and lavender gloves”. How Disraeli would have enjoyed appearing on Have I Got News for You!

Disraeli is an excellent example of that supremely British political species, the mountebank. He was a chancer, a trickster, an opportunist, a conman. His only principle was his own self-interest. When he was a young man, Lord Melbourne asked him what he wanted from life. “I want to be Prime Minister,” Disraeli said. Melbourne let out a long sigh, but Disraeli was deadly serious. “If I become half as famous as I intend to be,” he said on another occasion, “I must have riches and power.”

For Lord Salisbury, Disraeli was a “mere political gangster”, without “principles or honesty”. That description applies equally well to other great Downing Street mountebanks, such as the Liberal charlatan, crook and sex pest David Lloyd George. “My supreme idea is to get on,” LG told his wife Margaret. “To this idea I shall sacrifice everything … even love itself under the wheels of my juggernaut if it obstructs the way.” He meant every word. Not content with lining his pockets in the Marconi scandal, he stabbed his own patron, Asquith, in the back, betrayed his party and flogged peerages for cash. Some biographers think LG even slept with his own son’s wife. By those standards, Boris looks positively saintly.

Any other patterns? Well, here’s one we don’t often talk about. When Prime Ministers arrive in Downing Street, they usually make pious noises about bringing the country together. Even Johnson, after the general election of December 2019, told the cameras that it was “time to unite” and “let the healing begin”. But this is nonsense. You don’t become Prime Minister by uniting and healing; that’s what the Queen is for. To govern is to choose; to choose is to divide. And to divide, by and large, is to win.

Of the handful of truly great Prime Ministers, most were instinctive dividers. Few politicians in our history have been more adored than Gladstone, but few have been so hated, either. Disraeli thought him an “unprincipled maniac … an extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy and superstition”. Clement Attlee called him a “frightful old prig” and a “dreadful person”. Yet Gladstone served four terms as Prime Minister, more than Disraeli and Attlee put together. And what about Margaret Thatcher — another much-loathed divider, but also another record-breaking winner? Would she have done better to search for a middle course, to seek consensus, to duck the difficult decisions? Well, just ask Theresa May.

What’s it all for, though? That’s a more difficult question. Few Prime Ministers make an indelible mark on history; most end up largely forgotten. As Johnson must now realise, you sacrifice your best years, your family, your friends, even your health — and for what? A portrait on the stairs? The opportunity to spend the rest of your life with your bodyguards? The rare privilege of having people shout abuse at you wherever you go?

This, I think, is the unacknowledged truth about the life of a Prime Minister. By and large, it’s awful. Contrary to our adolescent fantasies, fame and success are no defence against the tragedies of the human condition. Asquith lost his eldest son Raymond at the Somme, and arguably never really recovered. His Tory rival Andrew Bonar Law lost two sons in the First World War, too, and spent his final days “despondently gazing into vacancy … obliterating light and happiness”.

And on top of the ordinary miseries of human existence, politics piles troubles of its own. Nobody ever thanks you, nothing you do is right and everything ends in tears. Baldwin, who left office in 1937 with applause ringing in his ears, ended his life as a pariah, the gates of his house spitefully ripped down for wartime scrap. Thatcher was kicked out despite never losing an election. Blair, another serial winner, can barely show his face without people screaming at him about Iraq.

Even Walpole, the man who invented the job, and perhaps the most underestimated Prime Minister in our history, was denied the pleasure of a long and happy retirement. For 20 years he had kept Britain safe, stable and, above all, rich. But in 1742 Parliament turned against him, eager for a leader who would embrace war with Spain. So that was that: out he went.

Walpole lived for just two more years, his days blighted by agonising bladder stones. He died, wrote his son Horace, “very poor”, his estates heavily mortgaged. “His Name will not be recorded in History among the best men, or the best Ministers,” wrote his contemporary Lord Chesterfield. There’s gratitude for you.

Sorry, Boris. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.